The European continent hosts 6 large carnivore species as follows: Brown bear (Ursus arctos), Wolf (Canis lupus), Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), Iberian lynx (Lynx pardina) & Wolverine (Gulo gulo) and Golden jackal (Canis aureus).
Overall, Europe hosts several large and stable large carnivore populations with thousands of individuals, many medium-sized and increasing populations that number in the hundreds of individuals, and a few small and declining populations with a few tens of individuals.
Brown bears are the most abundant large carnivore in Europe. There are 10 populations with an estimated total number around 17,000 to 18,000 in Europe (of which 15,000 to 16,000 are in EU). Only the Scandinavian population is decreasing, the rest are stable or increasing, though some remain very small. Wolves are the second most abundant species, with 17,000 individuals estimated in Europe (of which 13,000 to 14,000 are in the EU). There are 9 populations, following the extinction of the small Sierra Morena population. The other populations are mainly stable or increasing through for some the status is unknown. The estimated total number of Eurasian lynx is 8,000 to 9,000 individuals in Europe (of which 7,000 to 8,000 in the EU). Most of the 11 populations are stable, although most of the reintroduced populations appear to have stagnated, some at extremely small sizes. Finally, the estimated total number of wolverines is 1,000 to 1,250 individuals in Europe (of which 600 to 800 are in the EU, in Finland and Sweden). The Finnish population is slowly increasing while the Scandinavian population has recently decreased.
All mainland European countries have at least large carnivore presence with wolves establishing in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and potentially Luxembourg. The total area with a permanent presence of at least one large carnivore species in Europe covers 1,529,800 km2 (roughly one-third of mainland Europe).
Common Misconception: Large carnivores need wilderness areas to survive.
Large carnivores can be contained in protected areas
Wilderness in Europe is understood being areas “composed of native habitats and species, and large enough for the effective ecological functioning of natural processes. They are unmodified or only slightly modified and without intrusive or extractive human activity, settlements, infrastructure or visual disturbance.” There is often an assumption, based perhaps on the American idea of extensive national parks, that large carnivores need extensive wild areas to flourish. While it is clear that the recovery of large carnivores in Europe is linked to the increase of forest area and corresponding increase of prey species, large carnivores are not especially sensitive to human activities and can coexist with farming and forestry in a mixed landscape. While habitat does remain a limiting factor, it is not the most significant one.
On the other hand, large carnivores do need space. Because of their predatory habits, their conservation needs to be planned on very wide spatial scales which span many intra- and international administrative and jurisdictional borders. In general, even the country-scale is too small for large carnivores needs and cross-border management must be considered. Protected areas (PA) (the Natura 2000 network) adds considerably to the protection of large carnivore habitat; however, most of its sites are too small to support interconnected sub‐populations that could form a viable population. Considering population structure, suitable habitat and minimum patch size, only very few countries are able to support viable populations of these species within their PA system. These results indicate that, even though PAs may contribute to the conservation of large carnivores, they are certainly not sufficient alone.
The reasons are multivariate and are related to ecological, institutional and socioeconomic factors. They include the following: The existence of natural habitats and the improvement of their quality and connectivity in certain areas, despite the heavily humanized and fragmented European landscapes; the adaptive strategies of large carnivores to re-colonization of a large scope of human-dominated landscapes; the frame of the EU environmental policies and relevant European legislation aiming at conservation of biodiversity combined with context-specific management strategies; the support of the European public and specific rural communities and stakeholder groups in areas with large carnivores.
Common Misconception: Wolves have been reintroduced to Europe
Wolves have returned naturally across the EU. The increase of wolf populations and range in Europe is due to natural processes including dispersal of new individuals; re-colonization of former (historical range) and establishment of meta-populations. Only in Finland, have wolves occasionally been translocated across the country to avoid the Swedish population becoming genetically isolated (wolves are hunted in the Reindeer Herding Area and therefore cannot pass through easily).
While wolves have never been reintroduced, in a few cases bear populations have been augmented through population restocking-reintroduction (e.g. in Trento, Italy or the French Pyrenees). Reintroductions have however, been used most with lynx which does not naturally migrate easily (e.g. Switzerland, France, Germany).
Common Misconception: Wolf populations are increasing exponentially
There are several types of population growth. In exponential growth a population grows slowly at first, but then explodes and grows without limits. Logistical growth starts out like exponential growth but then levels off when the population hits the carrying capacity of the environment. The graph looks like a density-dependent “S” curve. The second type applies mostly to wolf populations.
This population growth pattern is also limited by several other key limiting factors such as habitat carrying capacity which limits growth of a population based on factors like food (prey), water, shelter, competition, immigration/emigration, etc. Hence some geographically marginal populations remain extremely threatened or decreasing. Additionally, large carnivores (and thus wolves), as key-apex predators have unique behavioural, biological and ecological traits that allow population auto-regulation at the level of carrying capacity.
For all these reasons it is rather unlikely for any wildlife population (including wolves) to increase exponentially, without reaching a level off status.
No. Not all large carnivore populations are in favourable conservation status. Although the overall picture shows stabilization or positive population trends, some species with either very localized geographical distribution (i.e. Iberian lynx) or in very low densities (usually in the periphery of their distributional range (i.e. Balkan lynx – a presumed subspecies of the Eurasian lynx) are in a rather precarious or a potentially endangered status. Even in the case of the large carnivore populations which are doing well (i.e. brown bear, wolf, wolverine) fragments of their populations, again in the periphery of their distributional range, are in a more precarious and vulnerable status and conservation threats such as habitat fragmentation and intolerance leading to illegal killing, remain high. Conservation and management actions therefore vary considerably depending on the individual populations.
Large carnivores across Europe are protected under the 1979 Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats (the Bern Convention) and in the EU countries under the 1992 Habitats Directive. The EU Habitats Directive implements the Bern convention in the European Union (EU), adding stronger enforcement and reporting mechanisms. A key concept of the Directive is that all the species and habitats listed (no matter which annex) must be maintained in or restored to favourable conservation status (FCS). The types of action allowed to achieve FCS, vary depending on species or habitat.
The protection afforded to species varies according to the Annexes they are listed in in the Directive. Annex II lists the species which require the designation of special areas of conservation (SACs), Annex IV lists strictly protected species (it is prohibited to deliberately capture, kill or disturb these species or their refuge areas/habitat) and Annex V lists species which can be exploited or hunted but only if this is compatible with maintaining them in FCS.
Common Misconception: Large carnivores cannot be hunted in the EU
Bears, lynx and wolverine are strictly protected under Annex IV in all EU countries. Wolves are included in Annex IV in the majority of EU countries but the following populations are in Annex V: Spanish populations north of the Duero, Greek populations north of the 39th parallel, Finnish populations within the reindeer management area, Bulgarian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian, Polish and Slovak populations.
While species listed in Annex IV are strictly protected, derogations under article 16, permit removals from the population (lethal management) under particular circumstances (for example for protecting other fauna and flora or for preventing serious damages e.g. to crops or livestock or for public safety).
Culling and hunting are therefore often applied by European Member States. Derogations are increasingly put in place in the case of annex IV species and there have also been requests to move wolves into annex V in various countries or regions. Hunting or culling is justified by those applying them as management measures on the grounds of reducing depredation of livestock by large carnivores, maintaining fear of humans or increasing human acceptance and tolerance of large carnivores and reducing poaching. However, the impact of lethal management of large carnivore populations for any of these purposes is strongly dependent on local conditions and is strongly debated at societal and political levels.
Yes. Most of the large carnivore species on the European continent are sympatric meaning that they can share the same biogeographic areas. Three large carnivore species (brown bear, wolf and Eurasian lynx) overlap over 593,800 km2 in Europe. In Fennoscandia all four species of large carnivores (brown bear, wolf, Eurasian lynx and wolverine) coexist and share the same areas over 171,500 km2. The same situation occurs in the Balkan region where three species of large carnivores (brown bear, wolf and Eurasian lynx) coexist.
Hybridisation between wild and domesticated animals poses a complex wildlife conservation challenge. Wolf (Canis lupus) - dog (Canis (lupus) familiaris), hybridisation is likely to have occurred repeatedly over the history of dog domestication. The status of hybrids is complex and can be unclear on taxonomic, legal and practical grounds. It is almost impossible to tell wolves and hybrid wolf-dogs apart from one another on site, making management decisions difficult: genetic analysis is often necessary to confirm the identification. A significant step towards was taken in December 2014, when government representatives from all over Europe agreed on a unified approach to address the problem of hybridisation between wolves and dogs. The Standing Committee of the Bern Convention agreed that removal of suspected hybrids should ‘only be carried out by bodies entrusted by the competent authorities with such a responsibility,’ while requesting national authorities to ‘adopt the necessary measures to prevent wolves from being intentionally or mistakenly killed as wolf-dog hybrids.’ The LIFE program is also playing a key role in financing several projects on this topic.
Common Misconception: Hybrids are more common than wolves and are less afraid of people
In Europe, hybridisation has been detected in several countries, e.g. Norway, Latvia, Estonia, Bulgaria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Greece, and Serbia. While in several cases crossbreeding resulted in only one or few litters of hybrids in restricted areas, in other cases the introgression of dogs’ genes into the wild wolf population has been found to be widespread across substantial areas, though to different extents (from 5.6% in Galicia – Spain to more than 70% in the province of Grosseto – Italy). This is however, generally the case in small wolf populations where free-ranging dogs are commonly present. Controlling hybridisation is tackled by reducing the number of free-ranging dogs through capture programmes and through enforcing dog ownership responsibility. There is no evidence that dog-wolf hybrids are bolder or less afraid of people than wolves are.
Aggressiveness is a behavioural pattern/attribute that characterizes most wild fauna species but more specifically carnivores. Aggressiveness specifically oriented towards humans is however, considered to be a very rare phenomenon. Bear attacks are documented in few and isolated cases in northern Europe and the southeast Balkans under very specific circumstances (normally a defensive mechanism such as protection of offspring or food and/or territorial competition). While fatal wolf attacks on humans have been reported in the past, none has been recorded in the 21st century in Europe.
Approaching large carnivores however, is not to be recommended. All wild animals should be left alone, especially where they have young. Measures to reduce risks to humans include information to tourists entering bear areas, proper waste management and farm carcass disposal as well as having emergency teams and set protocols in place to deal with any unusual behaviour from individual large carnivores (see case studies e.g. Bears and Men in Central Balkan National Park, Bulgaria; Wildlife Damage Centre (Viltskadecenter, VSC)) approach to dealing with problem situations involving large carnivores, Sweden; Bear Emergency Response Team, Greece).
Common Misconception: Encounters with large carnivores necessarily result in harm to humans
As highlighted above, large carnivores will avoid interactions with humans and in the vast majority of cases, in large carnivore territories, humans will never be aware of their presence. Guidance is available in areas and times of year where encounters are possible, for example by making noise, staying in groups, keeping dogs on leads and avoiding leaving attractants such as waste in places where large carnivores might approach.
Deaths associated with large carnivores are extremely rare. Between 2000-2015, an average of 3 fatal encounters with bear per year were recorded in the EU, most of these in Romania. For comparison, in the EU in 2016, 3302 people were killed in assaults by other people and 29,156 car accidents. Cows, moose and deer (causing car accidents) cause significantly higher numbers of fatalities compared with large carnivores, for example, in the UK alone, there was an average of 3 cattle attacks per year between 1993 and 2003 and around 1 fatality per year. Of course, this is also affected by the fact that large carnivores are rarer and are better able to avoid encounters with humans.
Large carnivores are predators and are therefore at the top of the trophic pyramid of the ecosystem. They thus play a crucial regulatory role over ungulate populations, balancing the overall function of natural ecosystems. Some large carnivores are also scavengers (i.e. wolverine) and therefore also play a sanitary role in the ecosystem. Furthermore, omnivorous large carnivore species (i.e. brown bear), contribute through their diet cycle to plants and fruits seeds dispersal thus enhancing the vegetation structure and diversity in a given ecosystem.
There is a lack of scientific consensus about how top-down and bottom-up forces interact to structure terrestrial ecosystems. This is especially true for systems with large carnivore and herbivore species where the effects of predation versus food limitation on herbivores are controversial. Uncertainty exists whether top-down forces driven by large carnivores are commonly felt, and if so, how the influence of predation adds to habitat and vegetation effects (primary productivity). Several published studies from over a 50-year time span, and analyses of the composition of large predator guilds (species exploiting a particular resource) and prey densities in boreal and temperate forests showed that predation by large carnivores, especially wolves and bears, with overlapping ranges, apparently limits densities of large herbivores. In areas with wolves, herbivore density increased only slightly with increasing productivity. These predator effects are consistent with the exploitation ecosystems hypothesis and appear to occur across a broad range of net primary productivities. Results are also consistent with theory on trophic cascades, suggesting widespread and top-down forcing by large carnivores on large herbivores in forest biomes across the northern hemisphere. These findings have important conservation implications involving not only the management of large carnivores but also that of large herbivores and plant communities.
Conflicts about large carnivores can concern 1) the direct impacts of large carnivores on humans’ economic activities such as large carnivores depredating livestock, destroying beehives or damaging property, wolves killing hunting dogs or competition for quarry species with hunters. 2) conflicts between humans with different viewpoints on how large carnivores should be managed e.g. those wishing to protect large carnivores and those who believe that they should be hunted or those who believe they should be eradicated. These differences in viewpoint may reflect deeper social conflicts (e.g. between rural and urban areas, between modern and traditional values, or between different social and economic classes). As symbolic species, large carnivores often trigger a fundamental debate about the future direction of the European landscape. This is the reason that there is rarely a direct link between the economic impacts of large carnivores and the level of conflict and conflict resolution does not just involve addressing the economic impacts of large carnivores.
“Resolution” in most cases does not mean that conflicts are addressed once and for all. Even when a problem had been successfully dealt with in the past, it might re-emerge in the future under a new frame. Local circumstances vary significantly in different locations and at different times. No previous solution can be celebrated as a panacea. Varying stakeholder composition, geographical and socio-cultural parameters, rural population trends, are all aspects which might affect the intensity of the conflicts related to large carnivores. For this reason, approaches involving stakeholders in setting up regional large carnivore platforms which deal with the issues on a case by case basis are currently receiving much attention.
This varies significantly. There is geographical difference in attitudes of local communities towards large carnivores in European rural areas. Livestock husbandry type and density of human settlements, for example, might influence attitudes of local communities towards large carnivores. Additionally, experience of living with large carnivores is very important. The stabilizing or increasing population trends of large carnivores have led to the expansion of species in areas where they have been absent for many decades. Local people in these areas across Europe are not used to living with large carnivores and livestock raising methods have changed to reflect this (e.g. no livestock guarding dogs are used). Such instances present substantial challenges for coexistence with large carnivores in the European rural environment.
The economic impacts of large carnivores can be addressed through the following measures:
Compensation payments in Europe are usually funded by national or regional governments in accordance with the relevant EU State Aid rules. They cover the direct costs of damages caused by large carnivores to livestock, infrastructure and beehives but also the indirect costs such as additional work and veterinary fees. They are alone however, not enough as they will not reduce depredation and the conflicts linked to the coexistence.
Prevention measures are a fundamental component of a comprehensive system to ensure coexistence. Measures (often tested in initially through LIFE projects) include different types of fencing, shepherding, livestock guarding dogs, night-time gathering of livestock, visual or acoustic deterrent devices. The effectiveness of these measures is highly dependent on their successful deployment and on the availability of sufficient resources and advice to support their implementation.
Information, advice, awareness raising. Providing factually based information on large carnivores and on how conflicts can be avoided can assist in implementing impact-reduction measures. For example the Italian web site “Protect your livestock” provides detailed advice on the types of measures which can be used to protect livestock and the different funding schemes which are available in the Italian regions. The Carnivore Damage Prevention News newsletter, which has been supported through different LIFE projects, provides a well-regarded source of information sharing on livestock protection within the EU and internationally.
Common Misconception: Large carnivores are completely incompatible with pastoral farming
In the past, in the majority of European countries, traditional pastoral farming was based on the system of seasonal transhumance where shepherds remained with the flock and moved with them according to the season. These systems developed with the presence of large carnivores, and human presence and dogs were used to reduce losses. They included a certain tolerance for losses which generally remained small when protection measures were in place. This shows that traditionally, pastoral systems were viable despite the presence of carnivores.
These systems continue in certain countries but in many have been replaced by more intensive livestock or cultivated systems. In general, intensive livestock farming is less affected by large carnivores as animals are kept enclosed. The systems which present the greatest challenges, however, are extensive systems where protection measures have been abandoned due to the lack of need in the half century where large carnivores were not present. At the same time, these systems are valuable as they support certain habitats important for many rare European species. The return of large carnivores comes at the same time as many other pressures on extensive pastoral systems, which suffer from lack of competitiveness, infrastructure and investment in comparison with more intensive systems. For this reason, the additional psychological and economic stress caused by the return of the wolf, in particular, adds to already existing pressures on livestock breeders.
In many European countries, measures to protect livestock have been developed and applied successfully (see EU Platform case studies, on the provision of practical support). Measures are not necessarily easily transferable and no single measure can be 100% successful, but adequate technical solutions (often used in combination) can significantly reduce livestock losses to predators. The relevant authorities and stakeholders need to carefully design the prevention measures suitable to the different situations, to properly implement them (including maintenance), to monitor their effectiveness and to apply any necessary adjustment. Training, information, follow-up and technical assistance to the concerned operators are key elements and should be allocated adequate financial support.
Large carnivores can also bring benefits to local communities. One of the most important benefits is the economic boost that large carnivores can provide is an added value to the wilderness attractiveness of a given natural area, thus encouraging tourism. This will have an overall positive effect on “green” tourism in the area, though it is clear that eco-tourism connected directly with large carnivores must be treated with care and not encourage people to interfere with behavioural patterns of large carnivores or attract them towards human settlements. Another example is the labelling of products produced in areas where large carnivores are present as “wolf or bear-friendly products”. Such labelling schemes can be used by farmers who have put in place appropriate protection measures.
Environmental policy has undergone significant transition from top down approaches to a stronger involvement of stakeholders. Acknowledging the cultural and social nature of conflict over wolves, participatory processes are seen as having significant conflict mitigation potential, for increasing trust between stakeholders. The EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores is itself an example of such an approach. Through a pilot project, the EU institutions are also supporting the establishment of regional platforms in a range of countries. LIFE EUROLARGECARNIVORES which started in late 2017 is also putting in place collaborative actions and sharing information across large carnivore hotspots in Europe.
On national and regional levels, similar approaches are used and many member states have set up platforms themselves. Additionally, stakeholder groups discussing wider conservation policy and its implementation on the EU and national level often address the topic of large carnivores. This type of approach can be integrated into broader species management planning (as required under the habitats directive), providing for an overall coherent framework for the implementation of protection requirements.
The Platform has gathered further case studies which break down example activities as follows: provision of advice / awareness raising; provision of practical support; understanding viewpoints; innovative financing and monitoring. A first analysis can be found in a Platform-commissioned report on supporting good practice for coexistence.
Useful references on conflict resolution and coexistence can also be found on the Platform library page.
In addition, several EU-LIFE projects have financially supported concrete actions for improving human-large carnivores’ coexistence, such as:
Yes. The EU LIFE programme has supported many individual projects related to coexistence on the basis of annual competitive calls for proposals. Actions supported can include demonstration activities and testing of innovative solutions for: livestock protection measures, vulnerability analysis of grazing systems, to assess the risk of predation and suggest the most appropriate strategy to protect livestock. More information is available from several reports commissioned by the European Commission.
The European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) can provide support for investments in preventive measures, such as in the purchase of protective fence or purchase of guard dogs (which, as non-productive investments, can be financed up to 100 %). Maintenance costs covering additional labour costs for farmers to check and maintain the protective fence or to move the fence, as well as for feed and veterinary costs for the guard dogs may be covered by agri-environment-climate payments. The EAFRD is indeed used in several Member States such as Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Italy, or France to fund livestock protection measures, including, for instance, salaries of shepherds, fences and livestock guarding dogs. Examples of how this has been used to fund coexistence measures as well as future potential of the fund are available on the Platform website and in the Platform-commissioned report: Report.
National funding (State Aid) can also provide support for investments in preventive measures; support for restoring destroyed agricultural potential such as investments in replacing livestock; compensation for damages or veterinary costs or costs related to the search for missing animals (all can be covered up to 100%, following an amendment to the State Aid rules in November 2018).
A comprehensive approach to funding and supporting measures is needed within a member state (and ideally cross-borders between member states sharing the same large carnivore population). Establishing a Species Action/Management Plan is a first step in this regard. Member states should reflect the main conservation and conflict issues large carnivores in their Priority Action Frameworks (PAFs), identifying the associated priorities and financial needs and laying out how they plan to fulfil them.
The EU Platform on Coexistence between People and Large Carnivores is a grouping of organisations representing different interests groups affected by and affecting the conservation of large carnivores who have agreed a joint mission: "To promote ways and means to minimize, and wherever possible find solutions to, conflicts between human interests and the presence of large carnivore species, by exchanging knowledge and by working together in an open-ended, constructive and mutually respectful way"
Seven stakeholder organisations are members of the EU Platform which is also supported by the European Commission:
Platform members acknowledge that human-large carnivore coexistence is not an easy target to achieve in all locations. There are many tensions to address and many more such tensions are expected to emerge under current socio-economic trends in a changing European countryside. The Platform aims to build on best practice to promote human-large carnivore coexistence. It also wishes to create a novel “space” of stakeholder interaction, where stakeholders can discuss the costs and benefits related to large carnivore conservation and management and find means to address conflict, in their effort to develop a common vision. In order to do this, the Platform exchanges information on a regular bases as well as organising annual meetings and regional workshops in areas of ongoing conflict. Additionally it gathers good practice examples and commissions background research and information gathering which is made available on its website. More information on current activities can be found on the news page of the Platform website.
Conflicts on large carnivores vary significantly across the EU, depending for example, on the socio-economic activities in the areas which large carnivores are returning to and the biogeographic and natural conditions. For this reason, the EU Platform has supported the establishment of similar regional groupings (Regional and local large carnivore platforms) which tackle similar problems in areas of ongoing conflict across the EU.